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On Expats

There are two types of expats – The Tourist and The Traveller.

To be a true Tourist expat, you must have a travel blog. This often banal, pretentious, dime-a-dozen, “Please analyze me!” form of expression will undoubtedly contain some clever title in Latin, a map of all the exotic countries the writer has visited, and uncountable trifling posts subtly boasting about their romantic lifestyle abroad, and how “open-minded” and “tolerant” (and if you are not “tolerant,” too, watch out!) they are in their San Francisan, latté liberal, patronizing judgements of their adorable little pet countries. 

Perpetually “soul-searching” whilst “temporarily” working as English teachers, preaching the present perfect to classrooms full of utterly disinterested students whom they are trying to sleep with (which drives the female expats and local men crazy), and satisfying their stereotypical Orientalist fantasies. The men treat the local women as sexual trophies, and the women constantly complain about how aggressive the “local men” are. Often running away from their failed lives in their own homelands, they desperately try to convince themselves that they are the only Westerners who could ever possibly survive in Seoul, Moscow, São Paulo, wherever.

Terribly didactic,  armed to the teeth with preconceptions, and completely naked of historical context, they love to denounce the nationalism, authoritarianism, and corruption which are likely endemic in their temporary toy country. They have turned complaining into a religion. The Tourist loves to pay his glib lip service to the local culture, yet hypocritically believes his own country to be vastly superior, which he occasionally gives lectures on. Any non-Westerner who disagrees with him is a xenophobic nationalist, and any Westerner who disagrees is an anti-Western self-hating cultural relativist.

But the fact of the matter is that most of these condescending, neo-colonialist tourist expats don’t really live in the country that they purport to live in. They live in a homogenized “Little Britain,” “Little America,” “Little Canada,” etc. They hang out at expat bars with all Westerners and a few token “locals” (who are completely Westernized and using them to practise their English and show off to their friends); they speak only English (and probably complain when foreigners back home can’t speak their rich lingua franca), yet love showing off how they can order a coffee at Starbucks in the local language; they suffer from terminal culture shock, constantly complaining about how backwards the local customs are, of which they are ostensibly experts on because they’ve read the Lonely Planet Guidebook’s “Fast Facts” paragraph; they eat at McDonald’s, boasting about how many countries in which they’ve eaten at said establishment; they spend most of their free time on their blogs and Facebook, engaged in self-indulgent, self-absorbed self-expression, explaining how selfless they are and putting up self-portraits with self-evident backdrops of the Eiffel Tower, Haghia Sophia, Taj Mahal, or ideally even with some local “ethnic” poor kids, and then making it “artistic” by clicking the black-and-white button on Photoshop.

They are nothing more than long-term tourists. The thought of actually living in their pet country forever never occurs to them, for they know that they do not truly belong there.

The Traveller, however, is different, which is both a gift and a curse. The first time the Traveller lives abroad is a magical, tragic experience, much like one’s first hit of heroin. Like the drug addict, the Traveller spends the rest of his life searching in vain for that euphoric feeling that he encountered during his first experience, knowing full well that he can never find it again. There is nothing quite like that first love.

The Traveller is caught between desperately trying to fit in as a native of his adopted homeland and loving the experience of being an overt foreigner, feeling unique and special. He often isolates himself, stubbornly refusing to speak his native tongue, and avoiding contact with anything that reminds himself of his own culture, which no longer stimulates him. He has a love-hate relationship with other expats, and at times he admittedly loves his adopted homeland jealously.

The Traveller is a true lover of culture, and is open-minded in a way that often scares or offends others, constantly asking “dangerous questions” and challenging his own and others’ stubborn convictions. He devotes huge sums of time trying to understand the people in his new home, voraciously reading every book he can get his hands on, surrounding himself with locals (usually falling in love with one), and going through the excruciatingly frustrating and humbling yet rewarding and empowering process of learning another language. He studies the culture, not with a feeling of sterile detachment, but intimately, lovingly, from the inside out.

Sometimes Travellers love monogamously, falling in love with a single country and staying there. Sometimes however, they are promiscuous, constantly feeling the urge to scratch their itchy feet by travelling to yet a new land, chasing that high, that fix of being in a foreign culture.

Once the Traveller leaves his homeland, he knows that he cannot ever really return, at least not to the same home from which he departed, for even if he does return physically, his heart and mind, or at least pieces of them, remain somewhere else. When the Traveller returns home, he often feels as though he no longer fits in, and that perhaps he is in fact no longer home, as though it has changed somehow. He finally realizes that it is not his home that has changed, but himself.

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5 thoughts on “On Expats

  1. Pingback: Mzungu | Advokat Dyavola

  2. Pingback: On Travel | Advokat Dyavola

  3. Pingback: On Expats | Nick Ashdown's Blog

  4. Pingback: On Travel | Nick Ashdown's Blog

  5. Pingback: Foreigner | Advokat Dyavola

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